Sustainability as joint effort of communal and civil society actors

By Larissa Wegner, Schöpflin Stiftung

“Think global, act local“ – this credo is associated with the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. In its Agenda 21, the UNCED emphasised, among other things, the importance of cooperation between local authorities and groups in tackling environmental issues. Even if this cannot mean releasing national governments from their responsibility, the bottom-up process still appears to be one of the most promising approaches to achieving urgently needed climate action in view of the longevity or failure of global climate protection goals.

Local initiatives for environmental protection offer the chance for direct collaboration between the lowest level of state representatives and citizens, but often face their own unique challenges and dynamics. Lörrach, a town of about 50,000 inhabitants in the southwest of Germany, is just one example for this. In Lörrach, promising advances for climate action have been started in a combined effort at the local level. Both municipal and civil society actors are involved, and, with the Schöpflin Stiftung, a local family foundation committed to setting the course towards a better future for young people and future generations. These groups are united by their long-standing local commitment and concern for sustainability, but initiatives of communal and civil society actors developed rather independently side by side.

The city of Lörrach has been following the path of sustainable energy policy for more than two decades. Twenty years ago, it became the first German city to be awarded the Swiss Energy City® label; and since 2010, it holds the European Energy Award® Gold. In 2019, Lörrach declared “climate emergency” and set itself the goal of becoming a climate-neutral municipality by 2050. On the other hand, Lörrach is home to an active group of citizens who have been advancing climate protection initiatives for many years, promoting a vast variety of individual projects, from food sharing and clothing swaps to permaculture projects and photovoltaics. And there is the Schöpflin Foundation, established by the heirs of a longstanding local family, and particularly concerned with empowering bottom-up civic engagement processes in its regional and nationwide activities.

Often, it does not take much to bring about positive change on the local level. In Lörrach, the Schöpflin Foundation offers low-threshold formats for local actors and projects. Through its Wandelbudget (“Budget for Change”), for example, the Foundation provides organisations and citizens with rapid and unbureaucratic grants for small projects and initiatives, which are otherwise unable to get going due to lack of start-up funding. The Wandelbudget is aimed at projects that promote social change, greater social justice, environmental responsibility and economic public good in the region. With the Zukunftsforum (“Future Forum”), first launched in autumn 2016 in association with a local citizens platform, the Schöpflin Foundation brought together players from different spheres to examine key issues and pave the way for new ideas and cooperations. The overall aim is to strengthen regional networks, promote greater sustainability and bolster social cohesion.

In 2020 communal and civil society actors joined in the effort to promote climate action in Lörrach. The city representatives realised that they need broad support by the local population in order to achieve their goals, as people have to be won over to measures that deeply affect their everyday lives. A September 2019 municipal council resolution initiated a “Climate Participation Plan” that invited the citizens to participate with their ideas and suggestions. Participators of the already existing civil society initiatives decided in October 2019 to take up the city’s offer and work together towards achieving climate neutrality. Through the connection of some of these actors, the foundation offered its financial and structural support for the project. In January 2020, the Runder Tisch Klima (“Round Table Climate”) was officially established as an independent and open forum accessible to all interested citizens. The up to 50 participants are divided into project groups that deal with different topics such as mobility and transport, urban planning, energy and housing, schools, urban greening, food and sustainable living.

In the case of the “Round Table”, the foundation’s approach was to provide the infrastructure and capacity building, thus helping the project to unfold and develop along its own agenda. The initiative was offered Foundation premises for meetings, and Foundation staff took over important organisational elements, such as a central e-mail address that is used to register for the meetings. In addition, temporary support was given by an intern who, as a Friday For Future activist, not only gave valuable input, but also helped to attract young people from the local FFF group to participate in the meetings. Key was the assignment of a professional moderator and coach with experience in organisational development and citizen participation processes. She has added structure and regularity to the process, ensured documentation of the results and continuity. In this way, the group succeeded in keeping track even through the difficult Corona year with almost exclusively digital meetings. Also and most importantly, as an external and neutral advisor with no stakes involved, the moderator has entered into an active and fruitful exchange with communal representatives.

This was crucial to overcome initial target definition issues and communication barriers. The city, on the one hand, has various stakeholders in mind, and must adhere to certain administrative channels and processes. Citizens’ initiatives, on the other hand, are less willing to compromise in their demands, more impatient, while not being held in account if they fail to deliver. This can lead to an impasse and to the parties involved becoming alienated and acting at cross purposes. However, the different approaches and concerns can also develop a productive dynamic if both groups are successfully brought into dialogue. This was the case with the “Round Table”.

This June, the city and the “Round Table” will launch a joint campaign to identify and reduce the community members’ carbon footprint with the help of an app. This is an important step on Lörrach’s path towards climate neutrality. But while the city representatives plan to be climate neutral by 2050, the “Round Table” members aim to achieve this goal as early as 2035. These different time frames have not divided the two players. They have understood that in order to solve their mutual goal they depend on each other. The city has adopted the position “the sooner the better” and will provide financial resources for the campaign. Together, they want to win over at least 500 citizens for this project. Multipliers from all sides are to carry the campaign into the local community with the aim of reaching the yet uninvolved and disinterested, following the credo: We will only master the challenges of climate change if we all act in concert.


Anna Keremen, Communications F20 |

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